As two young journalists, we have experienced firsthand how much the lives of young people have been upended during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we navigate major life transitions during this period of uncertainty, one of us just graduating college and the other entering her senior year, it’s hard to not feel alone. We know others around our age are probably feeling the same.
In this vein, we wanted to hear from young people like us about how their lives have changed since spring. From reexamining relationships with loved ones to grappling with new and difficult emotions and advocating for justice in their communities, young people have taken on new challenges. They do so as they’re still forging their own identities. Young people have been especially moved by this earthshaking year. Read about it in their own words here in part one of a two-part series.
— Sanya Kamidi and Anjali DasSarma
My grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in early 2012. Chemotherapy turned her from the industrious, sharp-tongued firecracker of a woman from my childhood into a bone-thin figure with sunken, watery eyes. I found that to be the worst about cancer: It is senseless and violent, but most of all, it is corrosive, eating away, slowly and deliberately, at the essence of the people you love.
One moment during her treatment stands out to me in particular. Ammamma and I were sitting on her balcony after a long day of chemotherapy, looking out over the cityscape of Hyderabad, India. She grasped my hand, her grip feeble, and rasped, “Priya, promise me I won’t die alone.” I hardly had the power to grant her this wish, but I promised her, with my 12-year-old’s confidence, that she wouldn’t.
I lived the next eight years of my life in fear that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill her request. As it was, she died on May 11, my mother and uncle by her side. They had managed to get to her in March, days before all flights to India were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve tried to tell myself that the anger I feel is selfish, that I’m lucky for having a roof over my head, but every time I try, the memory of saying goodbye to my grandmother over FaceTime stops me. This pandemic stole that from me, and from so many others.
Since her death, I’ve tried to honor her life through action, the way she would have liked. As a second-grade dropout, she cherished education, so I started an anti-racism book club with some friends in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minnesota. She loved art and was famous for her green thumb, so I took up watercoloring, intending to one day capture the warmth and glory of her rooftop garden. It is a poor substitute for her presence, but even in death, she pushes me constantly to be a better, more thoughtful person.
— Priya Buddhavarapu, 20, Gaithersburg
A passion rekindled
Six months ago, I had not anticipated spending my summer organizing protests and forming a youth-lead nonprofit. I hadn’t planned on leading a march in Columbia that would consequently have the largest turnout in Howard County history. And I most definitely was not planning on living in my hometown of Ellicott City for several months.
In February, I started brainstorming ways to avoid another college summer stuck at home. I raised the idea to my friend, Elana, of a multimedia road trip reporting project. We would travel for three weeks across Appalachia to interview local queer activists. We were interested in debunking stereotypes that obscure the diversity of this region. We hoped to photograph and share the rich stories of justice work happening in Appalachian communities. But in mid-March, coronavirus hit with a vengeance, halting our plans and closing state borders. I was exactly where I’d started: Ellicott City.
I watched the Black Lives Matter movement spark in the news and on the streets. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd provoked white Americans to reckon with this country’s deeply embedded racism and with police brutality. I felt worried that the initial momentum of the movement would subside in a matter of days.
In late May, a friend called to ask for help organizing a small vigil and march in Howard County in support of the national movement. She knew I had previous experience advocating for racial justice in Howard County public schools and that I could provide guidance on organizing a demonstration. Her call renewed my purpose in Howard County.
With only four days of planning, our “small” protest brought over 4,000 community members together. In three short months, a group of college-aged youth used the momentum from the march and vigil in Columbia to create Hoco for Justice. We’ve organized two major protests in Howard County, led banner drops, advocated for policy reform, met with local officials, created educational podcasts and filed for nonprofit status.
I never made it to Appalachia this summer. But my time in Howard County was not wasted. I found a community of young people with the vision to enact transformative justice and the vigor to break down corrupt systems and rebuild anew. Young people re-energized my passion for advocacy work in my own hometown.
— Sara Chernikoff, 21, Ellicott City
‘We were able to hold one another from a distance.’
More than anything, the last six months have taught me how to love and learn from a distance. As a college student who lived on campus full-time before the pandemic, I had become accustomed to the kind of social environment that is, by definition, curated. I was used to having proximity to my friends and to resources merely because I was there. When I was on campus, minimal work was required to maintain most of my relationships or my access to academic resources.
Now that I am back home, however, I have had to become a less passive participant in both my friendships and my education. In other words, I have begun to curate my life for myself. By virtue of distance learning, I have been forced to start negotiating long-distance friendships a year before graduation. To stay in touch with my friends, who are now scattered all over the country and across different continents, I must be proactive and intentional — I must practice intimacy that is active rather than incidental. And in doing so, I am getting the opportunity to nurture my friendships across distance, as I would have invariably been forced to do once undergrad ended.
In a similar vein, these past few months have also pushed me to take the reigns on my own education. After a spring term of online classes and a summer constrained by quarantine regulations, I have been reminded of the importance of active learning and how education can be communal even when it may not take place in direct proximity to others.
As my classmates and I were taking final exams, protests broke out across the country in response to the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade. Hungry for political education and understanding, my friends and I started a Black feminist reading group during quarantine. As we read and struggled together through theory and criticism, we also made space for one another to vent and reflect on our lives and how we each connected with the ideas presented in the works. Through this intellectual intimacy, we were able to hold one another from a distance. For, in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
— Jordan T. McDonald, 21, Seat Pleasant
‘My generation is stuck’
Living through my formative years stuck at home was never high on my bucket list. Already I struggled to find a sense of identity when I was surrounded by inspiring people and thought-provoking situations, and I am now left with the same problem but with none of the tools to fix it. Every day feels the same, and my identity as a student no longer seems to fit. I spend my days browsing the internet, guilty that I have nothing to do. I find myself paradoxically lonely when surrounded by my family, not really wanting to go out and see others while social distancing.
Though everything seems to have stalled in the past six months, my natural desire to expand and grow as a person hasn’t gone. Every day I spend doing nothing will come to define me soon enough, so I have a very human need to focus my energy somewhere. Mostly, this manifests politically. I have never in my life been so aware of my privilege, and so radicalized. Suddenly, I am thrust into a world of failed political leadership, of corruption and of suffering, all while from the comfort of my room, with a roof and my white, middle-class privilege keeping me safe from the harsh reality of the world.
I can’t vote. I don’t have money to back the right causes. My generation is stuck, experiencing all of the consequences but none of the control. I am inspired by the way my peers have come together, spoken out against injustice and protested, hoping passionately that our voices might change the mind of a voting adult somewhere. To my peers, people writing about their experiences online, and the growing conversation about injustice, I have nothing but gratitude.
Taking these months, away from the world, to learn about the faults and failings of my society will come to define me in the future. In my head, I have always fantasized about life as an adult, going about my day in college or in the “real world,” enjoying the feeling of having control over a life that is my own. I am still in my head often, as I feel I must, but I now see the future with less clarity. Everything is uncertain, but I know that, when the future finally comes about, I will exist in it as someone who would die fighting for a better world.
— Grace Hill, 16, Catonsville
Staying at home, between two homes
When I moved to Baltimore in August 2017, I had every intention of returning to London when I graduated. I was warned that trying to find a job and get a visa would be near impossible and that I wouldn’t be staying past my allotted four years. At the time, I had no problem with that. London is where I grew up, where I lived for 18 years, where my family is locate, and, quite simply, my home.
However, the more time I spent in Baltimore, the more I found my answer to the question, “What will you do after graduation?” and, more specifically, “Where will you be after graduation?” One day it’s “Not America!” Another day, “America, if they’ll have me.”
The past six months have caused my answer to that question to change a ridiculous number of times. In March, when I returned home for online classes, I felt my attachment to America solidify. Taking classes in quarantine on a time difference in my childhood bedroom wasn’t the easiest, but in many ways, having no idea when I would be able to go back to campus was even harder.
Over the summer, the rules for students on F-1 visas changed many times — an added stress for over 1 million students already dealing with a pandemic, time differences and being away from family and friends. From July 6 to July 16 was the most stressful time I’ve had in a long time. I suffered panic attacks for the first time in years, and quite simply didn’t know what the future held.
I didn’t know what country I’d live in the following month. I didn’t know whether I would have to go to Barbados for two weeks to get back into America to maintain my visa. I didn’t know whether I would be forced to take a semester off or if I would have to go back to America, only to spend the semester waiting to be deported and sent home. Eventually the travel ban was lifted for students on F-1 visas, and I was able to return to Baltimore in mid-August. And while I know that I can confidently stay here for the next few months, there’s still a lingering fear in the back of my mind when I think about returning home in December, and whether that will end up affecting my final semester.
And I have no idea what happens after graduation. What I do know, however, is that after telling myself “I don’t want to stay in a country that clearly doesn’t want me,” I have to separate the country from its leader, and the policies from the people — even if what happens in May is completely out of my hands.
— Amelia Isaacs, 21, Baltimore
Finding good among the bad
If someone would have come to me in December and asked me what would define 2020, a pandemic would not have been in my top 1,000 answers. COVID-19 has been the wildest time of my life. My entire lifestyle transformed into a post-apocalyptic stay-at-home order. There has been no contact with anybody but my immediate family and every activity that I enjoyed in my free time was halted. My entire education has been re-imagined and restructured to accommodate my home. My only contact with the outside world has been through my school Zoom calls and playing video games with my friends.
This lifestyle change was the most drastic turn of events and made me rethink my whole understanding of my safety and well being.
Instead of thinking about not hurting myself on the soccer field, I had to contemplate the fact of contracting the virus and spreading it to my family and loved ones. Although I knew that I was relatively safe because of my age and general health, I knew that some of the people around me were at a higher risk of getting severe symptoms and possibly fatal circumstances. This made wearing masks and using hand sanitizer a necessity in all areas of my day-to-day life. These new concepts were at first very annoying and hard to remember because of their outlandish nature. I was never in a situation where I needed to wear a face covering and even more so whenever I left my home. But I learned to always have a mask wherever I went and my cars were always packed with hand sanitizers
Once things started to open up I began to appreciate going outside and living through personal experiences. Because of this I began to do many things that I overlooked in past years. For example, during the most heavily enforced quarantine period I went on bike rides almost every day and on runs with my dad in the morning. This was all possible because of my new school schedule and all the time I had without any extracurricular activities. This just goes to show how a somewhat unbearable period of time turned into one of the most memorable times of my life.
— Bernhard Steinki, 14, Bethesda